by Jeff Skinner
The Arnold Palmer Invitational is a great week of golf. It is played on an excellent course, Bay Hill which is owned by Arnold Palmer. The early rounds are televised by The Golf Channel, which Arnold Palmer started years ago. It has a very good field of golfers, recruited and invited by Arnold Palmer. All this gives us a chance to enjoy something that we can never really get our fill of, and that’s the host Arnold Palmer. He is our golfing treasure. Many golfers have been respected and revered over the years but none has been as loved as Arnie. From the first members of Arnie’s Army in 1959 to the thousands that still ask for an autograph or a handshake today, he is loved like no other. He is as genuine as a man can be and still speaks from his heart no matter the subject.
During Thursday’s telecast on the Golf Channel, Palmer was chatting with Golf Channel hosts Kelly Tilghman and Brandel Chamblee. Chamblee is usually interesting and insightful with his comments and today was no different. He was discussing with Palmer how Arnold and his tournament had a proud history of inviting young and lesser known golfers to play and thereby giving them a break, a chance to compete in a PGA tournament. Chamblee then asked Palmer what his big break was.
Arnie thought for a second, and then said,” I guess winning the 1954 National Amateur was my break. That made me exempt into the pro tour.” How times have changed. The Amatuer Champion was given an exemption into the PGA Tour. That was the last year that exemption was given. Palmer certainly took advantage of that break. Arnold won the U.S. Amateur at the Country Club of Detroit against a field that included some of the best amateurs of the day. Many of them like Billy Joe Patton and Frank Stranahan played well enough to compete with the pros on the tour back then. Shortly after that Palmer officially turned professional and started playing the tour in 1955.
Palmer tells how he drove from tournament to tournament pulling his travel trailer so his wife Winnie and he could save money on hotels. The tour was a different place back then. The touring pros, even the great ones like Hogan, still had club pro jobs so they could earn a decent living.
Palmer played in many tournaments in 1955, earning money in fifteen of them. His first check was for $900 at Panama Golf Course. He finished out of the money plenty of times but still managed to cash checks; $520, $115, $242….not quite the pot of gold, but he was playing golf. That was all he ever wanted to do. His year included a tenth place finish at the Masters for which he won $696. He finally made his own break when he won the prestigious Canadian Open. For that win he pocketed $2400. The win gave him another exemption onto the PGA Tour and the legend of the King began. He could afford to park the trailer.
In 1955 Arnold Palmer earned $8,974 on the PGA Tour. This year Webb Simpson, a rookie and a Wake Forest man like Palmer, has earned $401,894, in seven tournaments. Times certainly have changed on the tour.
Professional golfers throughout the world owe Arnold Palmer a thank you. He earned a big break back when he was young and he keeps trying to pass it along to the many golfers he invites to his tournament. It’s one of the ways he keeps giving back to the game and just one of the many reasons we still love the King.